To end gun violence, build on what works
Washington’s public health approach to confronting America’s epidemic of gun violence is saving lives
In 2016, a teenager, jealous and angry after a breakup, bought a military-style assault rifle. A week later, he walked into a house party in Mukilteo and killed three of his peers, including his ex-girlfriend, and wounded a fourth person. In 2012, a 3-year-old boy in Tacoma found his father’s gun in their car and accidentally shot himself in the head. In January, a man with no apparent history of violent crime walked into a convenience store in Yakima, shot and killed three people he had never met, and then turned his gun on himself.
America’s ongoing epidemic of gun violence has in recent years spurred “a sea-change in Washington’s gun laws,” as The Seattle Times wrote in a 2022 editorial. Washington’s voters led the way by passing I-1639 in 2018, the most comprehensive gun control legislation in state history. At one fell swoop, Washington became one of the top 10 states in terms of gun responsibility laws, according to the Giffords Law Center. In the years since then, Washington has enacted more policies to prevent gun violence, including bans on bump stocks and high capacity magazines, tools that essentially turn a semiautomatic weapon into a machine gun. Washington’s strategy, though, extends beyond prohibiting the gun-modification devices mass shooters and criminals have used to devastating effect.
Over the last five years, Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration has borrowed from the field of public health to implement a new, ongoing approach to prevent gun violence in Washington. This new framework encourages data-sharing across city and county lines, along with a more nuanced process of analyzing data sets to tailor violence prevention and intervention strategies to specific cities and communities. To facilitate this work, the Legislature approved the creation of a new Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention that opened in 2021.
“You can’t fix what you don’t measure.” says Kate Kelly, the office’s executive director. “Robust data can help identify alternatives to more traditional responses to firearm violence, identifying which strategies should be implemented and invested in.”
As an example, Kelly’s office partnered with researchers from the University of Washington to compile an inventory of existing sources of Washington firearms-related data. This comprehensive effort gathered data from across healthcare systems, criminal justice sources, and firearm-related licensing and sales records in order to engage the owners and users of the systems.
Analyzing this data gave Kelly’s team a better understanding of the characteristics and trends in firearm-related incidents. As a result, the office now provides actionable information to local law enforcement agencies, healthcare providers, public policy leaders and other partners across Washington.
Fundamentally, Washington’s strategy is about putting protocols in place that prevent gun violence stemming from any number of circumstances.
“Research has identified connections between domestic violence, mass violence, community violence, violence against law enforcement and suicide,” Kelly says.
Her office has promoted and helped expand programs to reduce violence across every one of these categories, with the guiding principle that “all types of firearm violence are preventable.”
One strategy Kelly’s team is pursuing is to increase awareness of are extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs) and other laws that can result in a court order for the surrender of firearms. Research shows that the presence of firearms makes suicide attempts and domestic violence far more likely to end in death, confirming the importance of safe storage programs and court orders requiring firearm relinquishment. Suicides account for more than 75 % of firearm related deaths in Washington. Research has shown as many as 10 suicides are prevented for every 100 guns surrendered through an ERPO.
ERPOs are also effective in preventing fatal intimate partner violence because they provide a legal avenue for victims of domestic abuse to separate abusers from their weapons. Washington’s law is more expansive than many other states in that it allows for family and household members, as well as law enforcement, to file a petition for firearm surrender against someone deemed to be an immediate threat to themselves or others.
In 2018 and 2019, the governor, attorney general and legislators championed another series of bills to strengthen protections for victims of intimate partner violence. The new policies added domestic violence and harassment to the list of crimes that prevent someone from legally possessing a firearm. They also allow individuals to be notified if someone subject to a protection order — like an abusive ex-partner — fails a background check in the process of attempting to buy a weapon.
In addition to ERPOs, safe storage programs have become another keystone of gun violence prevention in Washington. The state has made it convenient for people to find options to store their weapons safely inside or outside of their homes. Groups like Seattle Children’s Hospital have started programs to provide free firearm lock boxes, trigger locks and safe storage training to gun owners. These efforts effectively prevent accidents and firearm incidents inside and outside of the home, creating safer environments for children and their families alike.
Washington has also taken a community-based approach to combating community and gang violence. In 2017, the governor hosted a summit of community leaders, educators and police officers to discuss prevention, intervention and suppression strategies. His administration has consistently called on the Legislature to increase funding for diversion programs in the Yakima Valley and other areas where this violence is concentrated to deter young people from joining gangs or participating in criminal activity.
Other communities and stakeholders in Washington are also approaching firearm violence prevention innovatively. In 2021, Harborview Medical Center implemented a novel protocol for patients with firearm injuries.
Rather than simply being treated and released, gunshot victims at Harborview can now meet with a counselor, often someone who has been the victim of gun-violence themselves, and learn about resources available to them, including mental health support, information about returning to school or gainful employment and food assistance. The program essentially turns a hospital stay into an opportunity for individuals to break free from cycles of gun violence.
The statistics broadly show that Washington’s work to counteract the epidemic of gun violence has been effective. From 2018 to 2021, while the number of deaths by firearm nationwide increased substantially, rates in Washington did not mirror that trend. Firearm deaths in Washington remain well below national averages. Even so, gun violence continues to claim the lives of Washingtonians every day, which is why Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and legislators are proposing additional firearm safety measures for this year’s legislative session.
Among the gun responsibility proposals up for debate in Olympia now, is a permit-to-purchase bill requested by Inslee. This would require all prospective firearm purchasers to complete safety training and apply directly to the Washington State Patrol for a permit before purchasing a gun. With a smaller proportion of first-time gun buyers purchasing a firearm for hunting — an activity for which a license and training has long been a standard legal requirement — more of Washington’s new gun-owners increasingly lack any kind of training in how to handle and store a gun safely. In the face of that trend, Inslee says the permit-to-purchase policy is a common-sense method of ensuring gun owners have the knowledge necessary to handle their weapons properly. The bill would also put in place a 10 day waiting period for all firearm purchases.
There is strong, compelling evidence that permit-to-purchase laws reduce gun violence substantially. Cassandra Crifasi, a gun owner who grew up in Washington, now works as an associate professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University. She recently testified in support of the bill.
“These are evidence-based policies that are associated with reductions in multiple forms of gun violence,” Crifasi said. “States with laws requiring prospective gun purchasers to first get a license experience fewer guns being diverted for use in crime, lower rates of gun homicide, including mass shootings and lower rates of firearm suicide.”
Connecticut, for example, enacted a permit-to-purchase law nearly 30 years ago and saw a 40% drop in gun homicides in the decade that followed.
The governor and attorney general have also requested two additional gun safety policy proposals. The first is a ban on assault weapons, backed by 60% of Washington residents. The second is a bill that will ensure gun manufacturers face civil investigation under the Consumer Protection Act if they fail to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. This bill passed in the Senate on March 2.
“This policy will ensure that the gun industry is treated like every other industry and faces real consequences for irresponsible conduct,” Ferguson said after the bill advanced.
Laws that reduce gun violence are just one element in the administration’s efforts to improve public safety.
“We need to escape the trap that public safety is about any one thing,” Inslee said in his State of the State speech earlier this year.
Building out mental health supports for those experiencing a behavioral health crisis, such as the state’s 988 emergency line, supporting drug treatment programs and training more law enforcement will continue to be key parts of the administration’s strategy.